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VINTAGE VACUUM POTS

 by Brian Harris

[An unpublished article written for the now-defunct Coffee Journal magazine.  Please note that some information is now out of date.]

Copyright 1995 Brian Harris - All Rights Reserved

As a child growing up in rural Maine, I was captivated by the glamour of the movies. On a cold and dreary Saturday, a ten-cent admission to the Empire Theater transported me to worlds I could scarcely imagine. The elegant insouciance of William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man, the refinement of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing their way through Fying Down to Rio, and the sophistication of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in The Philadelphia Story all seemed impossibly remote when compared to my own life. Yet fantasy came crashing into reality the day my grandmother came home with her new vacuum coffee pot. It was identical to the coffee pot Katharine Hepburn used in her film Woman of the Year with such hilarious results. It was with newfound respect that I stood beside my grandmother’s white porcelain kitchen stove while she brewed the coffee each morning. As a child who had not yet learned to appreciate the pleasures of drinking coffee, I nevertheless watched with wonder the enchanting ballet of flowing liquids that made up the brewing process. This early introduction to the vacuum method of brewing coffee, and her "Genuine Vaculator" Pot are now two of my most cherished possessions.
The
Vacuum Pot encompasses all the elements of the perfect coffee maker and has recently regained some of its former popularity among the coffee cognoscenti.  The brewing occurs at an ideal temperature of about 200F. The large brewing chamber allows the grounds ample room to swell and permits optimal flavor extraction. The brewed coffee is then separated from the grounds rapidly, with the best designed filters allowing the desirable oils and colloids to remain in the brew while not contributing any off-flavors. The result is a richly flavored cup of coffee which perfectly captures the vibrancy and complexity of the finest beans.
But the charm of the Vacuum Coffee Pot transcends its ability to brew fine coffee. For me it exemplifies a fundamental characteristic of the emerging American psyche: the eager embrace of technology in all its incarnations. Having come victoriously through two world wars, Americans looked forward to a bright and prosperous future. And this optimism was reflected nowhere more brightly than in the gleaming, chrome plated accessories that filled the kitchens of the era: curvaceous electric toasters, jittering pressure cookers, and the chic new Vacuum Coffee Pots.
Adapted from a design developed around 1840 by Scottish naval engineer Robert Napier, the Vacuum Pot, in its earliest form, is an alchemist’s dream: two graceful, glass globes are fitted together with scientific precision, a unique filtering mechanism is inserted, and the whole assembly is perched above a fluttering spirit lamp. A precise juggling of liquids and air pressure transforms plain water and ground coffee into liquid gold.
A more workaday style of Vacuum Pot was manufactured in America throughout the first half of the century by a number of companies, including Silex, Cafex, Cory, and General Electric. Most were made of Pyrex or similar heat-proof glass, with molded black or white plastic handles. Fancier models sported platinum stripes or applied ornamentation and some came equipped with a coordinating decanter cover, coffee measure, or other accessories. While many Vacuum Pots were designed to be used on the stovetop, later models often included special electric heating elements with a self-timing feature to simplify the brewing process. As electric kitchen appliance technology developed, all-chrome and chrome and glass automatic models were produced by Sunbeam and Westinghouse with integrated electric elements to compete with the electric percolator.
The main distinguishing feature between Vacuum Pots made by the various manufacturers is the filter mechanism. The simplest design was composed of a cloth filter stretched around a wire frame. With repeated use, the cloth became discolored and, unless faithfully laundered, would eventually taint the flavor of the coffee. Other filter designs involved ceramic or metal parts and enjoyed varying degrees of success. A major innovation in filter design was the patented Glass Filter Rod sold by the Cory company. A glass rod with a textured, bulbous center was the model of simplicity, yet made an effective and easily cleaned filter for Vacuum Pot brewing. A variation on this design with a metal spring-lock to hold the filter in place was marketed by the Silex Company, but the all-glass Cory filter remained popular promising coffee "untouched by metal." Today’s environmentally conscious coffee consumers will recognize the appeal of this reusable filter design.
Brewing
coffee in a Vacuum Pot is an easily mastered process. Water is placed in the lower globe, and finely ground coffee in the funnel-like upper globe (one to two tablespoons per six ounce cup). The two sections are then fitted together and placed over high heat. As the water is heated, steam is generated which, unable to escape the sealed vessel, exerts pressure on the surface of the water forcing it up the tube into the upper globe where it mixes with the coffee (the mixture should be given a quick stir at this point to ensure that all the grounds are wetted). When the water level in the lower globe falls below the bottom of the tube, steam is released upwards, agitating the mixture of grounds and hot water. At this point the heat is lowered, and the coffee is allowed to "gurgle" for one half to one minute before the pot is removed from the heat. As the pot cools, the steam in the lower globe condenses forming a substantial vacuum which quickly siphons the brewed coffee down through the filter and back into the lower globe. The upper globe and spent grounds are then removed and the coffee, piping hot, is ready to be served.

The only drawback to the Vacuum Pot that I have encountered is figuring out what to do with the hot and fragile upper globe when it is removed at the end of the brewing process. This was solved when I bought an old Cory pot with a "safety funnel holder" -- a plastic base especially designed to hold the upper globe. The more expensive Cona models currently available have also addressed this problem by incorporating a funnel holder into the arm that supports the pot over the spirit lamp. Cleanup is a simple matter of removing the filter, rinsing the grounds out of upper globe, and then washing the glass parts as usual.
Special care must be taken when using a Vacuum Pot on an electric stove. An old Silex instruction booklet warns: "Do not place your Silex directly upon a high speed spiral element or any Electric Kitchen Range produced after 1939 without using a small grid or asbestos mat." The modern cook should use a wire trivet or heat diffuser to avoid damaging the glass decanter.
Several contemporary interpretations of the Vacuum Pot are available in both glass (Bodum $50, Cona $150-$250) and stainless steel (Flavor-Seal $100), but for me they lack the charm and Art-Deco appeal of the older pots, which can often be found at flea markets and tag sales for $20-30. When purchasing a secondhand Vacuum Pot, inspect it carefully for cracks, especially in the fragile upper globe, and make sure that the rubber gasket is still pliable enough to form a good seal. I look for pots which are still in their original cardboard boxes, suggesting that they were used infrequently or carefully stored away after use.
For those looking to add some nostalgia and perhaps even a bit of drama to their daily ritual, I suggest making coffee the way my grandmother (and Kath
arine Hepburn) did: with freshly ground coffee, cold New England spring water, and a vintage Vacuum Pot.

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All Rights Reserved
Address comments to: Brian Harris